Esca Vitae is now closed.
There’s an old episode of “Good Eats” that has stuck with me for years and years. Actually, there are lots of old episodes of “Good Eats” that stuck with me. It was a really good show.
Anyway, Alton Brown was talking about sandwiches and, while starting off at a grocery store, he grabbed a loaf of sandwich bread and smashed it into a tiny ball of compacted carbs. His point: a lot of bread is mostly air and not actually all that suited to making a good sandwich.
I think of that episode a lot when I’m at Esca Vitae, a bakery with which I am only marginally obsessed. (Read my Esca Vitae breakfast review here.)
Like the bakery before it, the much-loved Prairie Thunder Baking Co., Esca Vitae is dedicated to baking some really excellent breads. And while I would happily eat an entire loaf of wurzelbrot as toast with a lot of very creamy butter, I’m very happy to see the restaurant move into the natural next step by making some really great sandwiches at lunch.
Patreon patron Sheri Guyse “won” a one-on-one review with me and I cannot tell you how pleased I was when she requested Esca Vitae. I’d already delved deep into the extremely scrumptious breakfast menu, but I hadn’t really explored their lunches much.
The dish I had before Sheri and I visited remains my favorite: a smoked turkey club ($12).
The hot breath of your yawns just traveled through the space-time continuum and hit me in the face. Yes, I know. A turkey club is maybe the most boring sandwich imaginable.
(That’s not true. What about a sandwich that’s just two slices of 100% whole wheat bread with a third slice of 100% whole wheat bread between them?)
A turkey club is the xanax of the sandwich world. Nobody gets excited about it. Until now.
Esca Vitae starts off with fresh sourdough bread and adds on house-smoked turkey. Real turkey. Not that weird turkey loaf they have at the deli. It’s some of the most-flavorful white meat I’ve ever tasted. On top of the turkey is some of Esca Vitae’s super-thick bacon (I call it steak-on) with provolone, tomatoes, lettuce and a schmear of basil-infused mayo.
The bread is crisp, the turkey is supple, the bacon is chewy, the veggies are fresh. Every single thing about this sandwich is perfect. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
With the surprising impact of the turkey club in mind, please accept this review of the veggie sandwich ($9).
Veggie sandwiches are, more often than not, a thing you give vegetarians who you want to punish. They’re usually a bland mix of lettuce and other bits of green plastic salvaged from Easter baskets between two pieces of dry bread that are rapidly getting wet because nobody bothered to dry the vegetables off.
Not at Esca Vitae. Here you get gorgeous, chewy slices of seeded wheat bread holding together tender braised red cabbage, onions, cucumbers, carrots and jalapeños with the usual lettuce and tomato accoutrements. Further boosting the flavor, the dressing on the sandwich is a salty olive tapenade, giving it a bit of a muffaletta taste.
“All it needs is some bacon,” Sherald said. “And maybe an egg.”
And while I fully agree those additions would make it even better, as veggie sandwiches go, this might be the best I’ve ever had.
The grilled chicken sandwich ($12) doesn’t scale such lofty heights, but it’s good. The chicken breast is juicy and tender and the added steak-on bacon brings a ton of flavor. There’s melted provolone and sauteed mushroom for more taste, too, it’s just...chicken breast is hard to work with. Esca Vitae did about a good a job as anyone can, but I’d probably just direct you to get the BLT ($9) instead. Why bother with chicken when you can just have more bacon?
I wanted the panzanella salad ($8) to be better than it was. It wasn’t bad — far from it — but there were a lot of elements that just didn’t pop together. Roasted butternut squash, sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts had good earthiness, but the accompanying lemon vinaigrette needed a bigger burst of acid. It lacked, in the words of Toki Wartooth, a certain “Zazz.”
That wasn’t an issue with the shrimp pasta ($15), which was zazzy as all get out. Or not zazzy, per se, but crazy creamy and full of perfectly cooked shrimp. The sauce was buttery and glorious, like taking a nap inside a hot roll. Add a dusting of freshly cracked black pepper and I could eat just the pasta.
But the shrimp were just right. Tender, juicy, with no chewiness. Each one popped as I bit into it, giving that subtle, sweet shrimp flavor we love.
Esca Vitae has quickly become one of my go-to spots for breakfast and lunch. The laid-back atmosphere is a joy. The food is generally spectacular with a few minor quibbles. If you’re looking for a sandwich that goes above and beyond, this is the place.